This week, Blueprint: New York City featured a brilliant and beautiful 30 minutes of the Merchant’s House on NYC Media, the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment.
“… nothing inside or out has changed … a time capsule hiding in plain sight.”
Watch the full episode below.
The Tredwell Costume Collection comprises more than 400 articles of clothing, primarily women’s dresses and their accompanying chemisettes, collars, undersleeves, and petticoats. The core of the collection is a remarkable 39 dresses documented to have been owned and worn by the women of the family. Many are outstanding examples of the 19th-century dressmaker’s art, composed of fine and delicate fabrics and ornamentation.
Currently on display in Eliza Tredwell’s bedroom: a one-piece spring and summer dress, 1859-1864, made of cream-colored sheer muslin with woven cream stripes and a printed black, tan, and red floral pattern. Printing with synthetic aniline dyes, which were discovered and initially produced in 1856, was a less costly way to replicate the look of more expensive, more intricately woven fabrics. This dress, because of its fragile condition, is rarely exhibited.
Of note, this dress is documented in the Index of American Design (IAD) at the National Gallery of Art (image to right). The IAD, a program of the New Deal Federal Art Project, was formed in 1935 to illustrate through watercolor renderings the history of American design in the applied and decorative arts.
Did you see the “fastidiously preserved” and “also imperiled” Merchant’s House in The New York Times last weekend?
Two Goods Reasons to Visit NoHo
From the 1830s to the 1850s, East Fourth Street was a high-society Manhattan address with neighbors named Astor and Vanderbilt. Charles Dickens and Washington Irving sojourned in the area, which then was called Bond Street. The MERCHANT’S HOUSE, at No. 29, built in 1832, stands as a testament to that period, seeming as unchanged and as fragile as Miss Havisham’s wedding dress. It is also imperiled.
In an effort to present an even more authentic interpretation of the House and the family’s original furnishings, we are in the midst of extensive research to ensure that window treatments, carpeting, and placement of the Tredwell furniture accurately represent our period – 1835-1865. For example, we have removed the badly worn hall carpet to study the floor beneath for evidence of nail holes and paint to guide us in choosing appropriate replacement. The bedroom carpets were taken up to provide access for the removal and reinstallation of the recently conserved gas chandeliers in the parlors.
As part of the research for the Historic Furnishings Plan, we have conducted extensive analysis of the paint and decorative finishes in our period rooms. Microscopic and chemical analyses of samples taken tell us what kinds of paints and what colors were used during different periods of the house’s history. All evidence points to a top-to-bottom redecoration of the House in the 1850s.
On Friday, September 16, 2011, in preparation for the next stage of our structural restoration project, sheets of 20th century architectural canvas were removed from the east wall in the parlor floor hallway — revealing the original plaster, complete with 19th-century paint. The cracks caused by water and the passage of time have now been repaired and a temporary paint coat applied.
The “Fab-rik-o-na” canvas was applied in 1935 by the Museum’s founder, George Chapman, to create a smooth surface over aging plaster — a common practice at that time. When the canvas layer (and its coats of 20th century paint) was peeled away, it revealed a 19th-century wall surface that hadn’t been seen in over 75 years. It also uncovered a wealth of clues that will provide information about how the House was decorated, how the hallway was used, and when the Tredwells (who lived here for nearly 100 years) made changes.
- A hole near the foyer shows where a pipe was attached for a free-standing coal stove. No doubt cold air swept in whenever the front door was opened. The stove was removed when the family installed an elevator in the same spot following daughter Sarah’s carriage accident in 1872.
- Dark lines on the wall show where the elevator shaft was built out into the hallway, corresponding exactly with evidence of the elevator discovered on the hallway floorboards in an earlier investigation.
- A plaster patch the size of a quarter near the ceiling indicates that a substantial picture hook was once attached in line with the ceiling medallion for the hallway light fixture. It’s likely that a mirror once hung there, to reflect the light and create the illusion of moore space.
- The 1870 paint color in the hallway is now visible. It has oxidized to an ocher and the glaze over it is also clearly visible. Further paint analysis will determine the original color, of course. It also matches the color that the house was painted in the early 1930s, when it became a museum.
- A fragment of 1840s/50s floor cloth was found under the plumbing chase on the wall.
The evidence provided by the newly revealed wall will go a long way towards unraveling some of the more persistent riddles about the House. Stay tuned.
Maintaining our 1832 landmark building requires ongoing work. The current phase of restoration includes repairs to the decorative plaster finishes in a number of our period rooms; a complete upgrade of the Museum’s electrical system; repair and painting of the rear façade and 13 original windows; and restoration of the decorative wood cornice on the front façade.
The $598,000 project, which has been generously funded by our Council Member, Rosie Mendez, is nearing completion. While we remain ‘open for business” during the restoration work, unfortunately we are not able to display any of the Tredwell dresses in the collection.